Maintaining the status quo

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Maintaining the status quo

While covering the changes of China in the past four years, I may have missed the things that remain unchanged internally. But now I feel that one cannot understand modern China accurately without seeing the unchanging things.

Anyone can see and feel changes that are apparent on the surface. When I was first posted in Beijing in 2012, so much had changed from the previous decade. The streets were filled with traffic, and the single-story houses called pingfang had been replaced by high-rise apartments and skyscrapers. China emerged as the second-largest economy in the world and was competing for global hegemony with the United States. The world spotted these external changes and tried to interpret China.

However, there are eternal values underneath the changes. Last year, a high-level Chinese official called me at noon and suggested a dinner out with spouses at 6 p.m. I cancelled a prior engagement and agreed to meet him. But he appeared by himself, without making excuses or giving explanations. He nonchalantly asked me about how Korean media responded to Xi Jinping’s reforms. Later, I asked a Chinese professor about this incident, and he said the bureaucrats were not accustomed to etiquette.

What about the diplomats who are supposed to have international manners? Korean and Japanese diplomats say their Chinese counterparts would call them at 2 a.m. with urgent businesses, but when the Korean and Japanese officials need to speak with them, they would not answer or call back. By comparison, American diplomats are always accessible and available by phone, and other diplomats can meet with them freely by appointment. Despite Xi’s reforms, China’s bureaucracy and Sino-centrism always comes first.

The emphasis on macroscopic values over microscopic elements hasn’t changed. China is still weak on details. A lavish, gigantic building is often accompanied by inefficient internal space utilization. At a specialist panel meeting before the Central Economic Work Conference on Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang got furious and asked why China cannot make a pen that works properly. China produces 38 billion pens a year, occupying 80 percent of the global market, but 90 percent of the ink is imported from Japan and other countries.

China’s foreign policy may see certain modifications but won’t see major changes. The main priority is stability. Especially toward the Korean Peninsula, Beijing adheres to the three principles of peace, denuclearization and resolution through talks. We should not expect China to play a role in urging North Korea to change and contribute to unification. Maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula is in China’s national interests. In order to avoid trial and errors in dealing with China, we should pay attention to what remains unchanged.

The author is the Beijing bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 8, Page 34

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